The 1990's saw the addition of orbital satellites, laser guided bombs, fibre optic cameras, night vision goggles, personal computers, state of the art hardware, and more overtly militaristic themes to the techno-thriller format.
One of the best of these films, which tended to coincide with the first Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union, was "Patriot Games", directed by Phillip Noyce with a certain classiness. The plot is a generic revenge tale, but it takes place within a world that is genuinely interesting: CIA conferences, Pentagon back-rooms, high-tech gear, telephone calls from the president etc. Building on the work of political thriller directors like Costa Gavras, Pakula, Frankenheimer, John Schlesinger and Fred Zinnemann, and mainstream novelists like Michael Crichton and Frederick Forsyth in the 70s and Tom Clancy in the 80s, an entire vocabulary was being added to here.
Beyond the classy direction and the cool gear on display (the film has 3 good action sequences – one involving a CIA raid viewed entirely through a spy satellite- a big deal back in 1992), "Patriot Games" is mildly interesting for a couple other reasons. This is another in a long line of movies in which Harrison Ford finds himself playing a meek everyman who bravely protect his family, and it's funny to see the film's scriptwriters struggling to be politically correct. They want IRA bad guys, but they don't actually want to offend the IRA, so they opt instead for an Irish bad guy who is "too hardcore for even the IRA". End result: writers able to serve up easy cartoon villains whilst also placating their conscience.
More interesting is the way all these films popped up during the First Gulf War. Like an unconscious display of American prowess, in the form of super advanced technology and "all seeing" surveillance gear, "Patriot Games" might as well have been an advertisement for the military industrial complex and the long reaching arm of Uncle Sam.
In terms of flaws, the film has two: at times the villains are pure cartoon and the film's ending features a silly action scene on a boat, hastily tacked on by nervous studio heads. A better director would have extended the action sequence in the house (the film's climax features a battle in a CIA safe house) and omitted the boat sequence entirely.
Released 2 years before "Patriot Games", "The Hunt For Red October" trades Gulf War muscle flexing for post Cold War, pro Soviet/American bridge building. But though it pretends to be about the healed wounds between Russia and America, this is still a rather propagandistic flick, about a Russian submarine captain who seeks to defect to the glorious promise land of Uncle Sam. Here, like "Patriot Games", a techno-culturally superior America is filled with good leaders and upstanding generals, and Russians would be crazy not to come on over for a slice of "freedom".
Still, the film was directed by John McTiernan ("Die Hard", "Predator", "Die Hard 3", "Thomas Crown Affair" – all good action flicks), so it has a certain style to it. Like "Patriot Games", once you get past some clichés and some clownishness, it's a rather serious picture with some nice hardware on display for the boys and some well mounted action scenes.
Released in 1994, and again directed by Phillip Noyce, "Clear and Present Danger" is the most sophisticated of these films, which were all based on Tom Clancy novels (Clancy, a major tech-head, fantasises about World War 3 for a living). Here, the world isn't made up of good guys and bad guys and there are lots of conflicting, self interests. The villain here is also nothing less than the President of the United States, a gutsy move, though by now this "paternal villain" cliché is getting old ("The Fugitive", "LA Confidential", "Monster's Inc", "Minority Report" etc). Unusual for such films, "Danger" points out the immorality of affairs such as Irangate, doesn't salivate over the film's depiction of a secret war in South America (which Noyce links to Vietnam), considers (somewhat) the moral implications of violence, criticises snap emotive responses and deals with political betrayals and private agendas among both the President and his advisers. Where the film differs significantly from its 1970s predecessors, is it's total lack of impotency: the 90s spy-hero doesn't shy away from responsibility, and will go so far as to topple the Presidency to maintain the good of his country
What's funny, though, is that the film treats its central idea (the President mounting an illegal covert war in Panama) as a shockingly evil thing. In the real world, despite the fact that the American President is not allowed to deploy or instigate any military actions without Congress first declaring war, he routinely does so. Iraq, Vietnam, Korea etc, not to mention countless CIA instigated coups in places like Haiti, Iran, Chile and Ecuador, were all illegal by the Constitution of the United States. The fact is, Congress is always sidestepped, most recently in the "bank bailout package" fiasco.
This being Tom Clancy, the main attraction is once again the gear on display: laser guided bombs, F18 hornets, sniper's hidden in the grass, an RPG attack on a convoy etc. From here, many computer game franchises would spawn, and from there, a banalization of military technology. People used to go to these thrillers and marvel at the hardware, gasping at the inside looks offered of the Oval Office and Pentagon, but now such things are routine, countless TV shows (West Wing, 24, The Unit, JAG) and video games (why be wowed by the sniper on screen, when you can BE him online) diluting the spectacle that made these films popular in the 90s.
8/10 - With the down sizing of armies around the world, and all technology fetishized to the point of disaffection, the techno-thriller genre (itself a genre borne from war, see Lang's 1928 "Spies") looks like it's winding down again.
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